USA

Holler back, Appalachia & The Delta.

hollerLast July I spent five rainy days in Appalachia, in the far west of North Carolina near Boone – and another two days in the Arkansas Delta in the town of Hughes, visiting new projects Heifer International is undertaking here in America. barn

This is pretty country.hydrangea

In the Delta, it’s awesomely fertile country (or at least it was before the advent of agribusiness with its soil-stripping, water-hogging monoculture of corn, cotton, rice and soybeans that requires only one person per 1,000 acres to farm). agribusinessBut this is also hardscrabble America … where poverty prevails, industry has fled, opportunity seems to have vanished, and hope is hard to find.shedIt’s important to see this America.

The only food store in Hughes burnt last year.

The only food store in Hughes burnt down last year.

It matters.Austin

Because 15% — or 46.2 million people– now live in poverty in America; and when I say poor, I mean a family of four earning less than $22,200 a year. And 36% of those poor people are children. The miracle of grapes

But to most of us, they’re invisible.waitressesWhen you’re in a place like Hughes or Ashe, N.C., (or just living with our heads in the sand), it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing that can be done. But Heifer’s crew of Jeffrey, Perry, Edward, Pastor Rob, Bubba, Duncan, Travis and a host of others have a different view.

Edward Rucker, Heifer's charismatic community organizer in Hughes.

Edward Rucker, Heifer’s charismatic community organizer in Hughes.

Biker/gardener Duncan and his wife

Biker/gardener Duncan and his wife tend a huge community garden in North Wilkesboro, NC

Carol Coulter, cheesemaker extraordinaire.

Carol Coulter, Appalachian cheesemaker extraordinaire.

Heifer’s plan is to work within these communities using sustainable agriculture to improve the health, nutrition and income of the people – organizing smallholder farmers (providing land when necessary) to grow fruits, honey, nuts, meats, and vegetables that can be sold in local markets. hopeBasically, it’s about turning these food deserts and manufacturing graveyards into oases of growth. pepperThat endeavor requires education, support, counsel, supply chains, marketing and attitudinal changes – but Heifer and hundreds of activists in the community believe it can be done– and who am I to argue with hope?Angela, Chad and Pastor Rob BrooksAs Perry Jones, Heifer’s USA country director says, “Once an opportunity is given and people have a chance for a dignified, self-reliant life, they lunge into it.” secret

Have hope. Read more from Appalachia & The Delta here:

https://heifer12x12.com/2012/07/18/a-hard-rains-gonna-fall/

https://heifer12x12.com/2012/07/24/seeds-of-changesprouts-of-hope-2/

https://heifer12x12.com/2012/07/27/down-on-the-farm-sure-looks-like-up-to-me/

https://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/01/bikers-for-broccoli/

https://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/06/a-short-rant-about-food/

https://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/09/despair-hope-in-the-delta/

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Despair & hope in the Delta.

Traveling from Appalachia to the Arkansas Delta was a shock to me. I thought I was prepared to see poverty – heck, I’ve been seeing poverty this whole year of travel with Heifer – but there was something about the sheer desolation of the town of Hughes, Arkansas that just about broke my heart.

The Delta stretches across the far eastern part of Arkansas, in the vastly fertile bottom lands of the Mississippi River where giant agribusiness farms of 10,000 acres prevail. Yet in an ocean of agricultural fecundity, Hughes is a food desert – its only grocery store burned to the ground.

Delta folk are predominantly African-American; brought to the region as slaves, they worked as sharecroppers for decades after the Civil War, then as agricultural day laborers until farm mechanization reduced the need for human labor. Now unemployment in the Delta stands at about 40%, prostitution and drug use are rampant, food insecurity of children is about 25%, and even the Blue Devils Hughes football team is a fading memory on a rusting water tower.

Main Street, Hughes

But as Perry Jones, Director of Heifer USA reminded me, “This is the before photo. We’re just getting started here, and things are going to change.”

Sweet girls of Hughes saying, “Take my picture! Take my picture!”

Heifer’s Seeds of Change program will focus five years working in 9 counties in the Arkansas Delta to create community food enterprises (and jobs) growing healthy, local, organic food and linking small-scale farmers to larger and diverse markets in nearby Little Rock and Memphis, where local food is sought-after and valued.

That sounds good on paper, but it’s the people making it work who turned my feelings of despair into something approaching optimism. Perry himself is a fire hose of positivity. Having spent 14 years working for Heifer in Bolivia, Jones still believes he has the “best job in the world” and that “if you give people the chance for a dignified, self-reliant life, they’ll lunge into that opportunity.”

Gardener William Eldridge

And indeed, we saw some of that lunging. William Eldridge, a local gardener, introduced himself to us on the street while I was taking photos and was eager to drag us over to see his garden.

Edward Rucker, Heifer Production Manager in Hughes.

Edward Rucker, Heifer’s Production Manager, grew up in the area and is recruiting local growers like William, assisting them with farm trainings and marketing, and searching for a place to establish a Farmer’s Market to sell local produce. The East Arkansas Enterprise Community, established in 1995, is partnering with Heifer to offer technical and financial assistance to these local growers and to help dispel negative notions that keep people from farming. Notions like working the land is tantamount to slavery, or that giving up government assistance to work is too big a risk (any income can cause essential benefits to be taken away). These are real issues and can only be resolved with proof that success is possible.

Local sweet potatoes, a high value crop in the Delta.

And that’s what Perry and his team are out to do: create a model of economic, social and environmental health in a place where it has never existed. Like in the new Hughes Community Garden, overseen by Reverend W.E. DuBois — 90 years old and “retired” from teaching agriculture in the nearby community college.

Reverend W. E. DuBois and his garden

It’s been said that the darkest hour is just before the dawn, and I’m praying that’s true. It’s high time for a Delta dawn.

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Farming, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

A short rant about food.

The good stuff…

Something’s wrong with the way we eat in this country. Or maybe it’s just what we eat in this country. Because we’re packing away a whole lot of this:

Soybeans as far as the eye can see…found in almost every processed food in America.

And not nearly enough of this:

The food we eat in America is not just a personal choice; it’s systemic and entrenched. Most farmers (and all agribusiness) grow what U.S. farm policies favor, and the majority of government support goes to five commodity crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice — and not one fruit or vegetable. Despite the fact that two-thirds (yep, you heard right) of Americans are overweight or obese, and new USDA guidelines call for more vitamins and minerals in our diet, our fertile country does not produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet those guidelines.

In fact, only 2.5% of total U.S. cropland under production is devoted to growing the fruits and vegetables that could keep us from being so overweight and malnourished at the same time. And people who are poor suffer disproportionately from this malady since the cheapest food is often the worst for you, while the cost of unsubsidized fruits and vegetables has been kept comparatively high.

But what we’re saving at the grocery store, we’re paying out in health care — $147 billion annually on obesity-related illnesses every year.  And down the road, 50% of all children of color are expected to develop diabetes in their lifetime, thanks to a deadly combo of fats, sugar, processed food and inactivity.

Obviously, we need to change what we grow and how we eat — but as we all know, changing bad habits can be really hard (and I’ve got the bitten nails to prove it). I’d love to see the mega-farmers and corporations that control 70% of all harvested U.S cropland and earn $5 billion a year to grow one of the commodity crops, divert just 1% of those acres into growing fruits and vegetables. That would immediately increase fruit and vegetable production by 33% — and hopefully encourage more people to grow and eat the good stuff.

Small is beautiful.. and healthy.

Then, we could work really hard in our own communities to support local food movements like Heifer is doing in the Appalachia region of western North Carolina and the Arkansas Delta. If there is one thing I’ve  noticed in my travels around the world is how utterly removed most of us Americans are from the land, animals, and food we eat. That seems sad to me – and disrespectful. So before I leave the beautiful hills of Appalachia, let me tell you some of the cool things Heifer is doing to promote small farms and big gardens, and reawaken the long tradition of fresh, homegrown food that has been the backbone of Appalachia for centuries.

The Farmer Incubation Grower program provides land, equipment, markets, and training to limited resource folks so they can become the next generation of knowledgeable farmers– co-supported by nearby Appalachian State University, which has committed to buy locally 15% of the food it serves its 14,000 students. Wow! New Meat Processing Facilities (like Heifer is creating with Pastor Bubba!) will allow cow/calf operators to capture some of the $60 million regional meat market with grass-fed, hormone-free beef. And Aggregation/Distribution centers are being planned to handle all the glorious, locally-grown produce and get it to stores and restaurants at its peak of freshness. (I could include  the concentric circles-crazed Logic Model of Heifer‘s own Jeffrey Scott that explains all this, but it gave me a huge headache so I’ll spare you.)

Suffice it to say that building a robust regional food system that can create jobs, improve health and nutrition in our homes and schools, and help end poverty and hunger is a pretty appetizing thought.

Dig in!!

p.s. These are all my opinionated opinions (you bet!) and don’t reflect Heifer’s views or policies.

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Farming, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Bikers for Broccoli.

Pastor Duncan Overrein of Crossfire Biker Church

I’m not much of a biker chick (I proudly ride a scooter, dude) and precious few people confuse me with an evangelical Christian, but I have to tell you, I was about ready to jump on a Harley and get a few big Jesus tattoos after meeting the liturgical heads of the Crossfire Biker Church in Wilkes, North Carolina, during my trip with Heifer to Appalachia.

Big, sweet Dwight “Bubba” Smith

Duncan Overrein and Dwight (Bubba) Smith are the Associate Pastors (Alan Rice is the Senior Pastor) of Crossfire, an admittedly unorthodox United Methodist Church. Their sanctuary is in Cooler #1 of a 17,000 square-foot former refrigerated trucking terminal, their choir is a kick-ass hard rock band, and their collection basket is called “Loot the Boot” –but if their mission isn’t pure love in action, I don’t know what is.

Duncan and Bubba were called to the ministry after admittedly colorful pasts, and they have thrown their hearts and their Harleys into the work. With Heifer’s help, they’ve created The Giving Table, a hub for a regional food system whose mission is to bring jobs, better nutrition and income to Wilkes County.

The collection boots.

Bubba, who worked in Crossfire’s terminal/tabernacle for 8 years and knows every nook and cranny in the massive place, is planning to use every square foot of refrigerated space to distribute grass-fed, hormone-free beef to a burgeoning market, plus they’ve already started a food pantry that feeds 50 needy families a week, partnered with Wilkes County to get a $358,000 grant to build a greenhouse that is supplying thousands of seedlings to local gardeners, and started their own one-acre vegetable garden that is donating oodles of fresh produce to those in need.

And there are a lot of needy people in Wilkes County. Fully 25% of Crossfire’s own congregation is unemployed, and the county is one of the poorest and most food insecure in the state. But on the up side, Wilkes is fourth of North Carolina’s 100 counties in beef production. So Smith is working with Heifer’s Jeffrey Scott to make that a viable enterprise: buying finished steers from local farmers, partnering with a local slaughterhouse (more jobs!), distributing the meat to stores and restaurants, and donating 10% of all that beef to the Second Harvest food pantry. Which is really a good thing, as nationally food pantry demand has gone up by about 50% while government support has decreased by about 66%.

Until they get started with beef, sugar & salt hams are curing in Crossfire’s warehouse.

Meanwhile, out back Duncan is overseeing Crossfire’s big, beautiful God’s Garden in Community with a passel of volunteers who show up every day to stake, tend, harvest & weed. When I ask Duncan if he’s always been a gardener, he looks at me like I’m a bit loco and says,  “No, I’ve always been a biker. But the Lord showed me to it.” I ask how the Lord showed him and he replies, “In Genesis, Adam and Eve were told ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’ … so I figured I needed to learn how to grow things. And look how awesome God is!”

Duncan gestures exuberantly  at his abundant garden and I totally concur: it is pretty darn awesome.

Duncan’s green miracle.

Pastors Bubba and Duncan still have a long road to hoe before they get their meat processing venture off the ground; it’s a complicated enterprise with lots of moving parts and hurdles to overcome. But they have Heifer’s support, they are stepping out in faith, and they’re not afraid of much– maybe because they’ve seen a lot of bad road.

As Duncan philosophically puts it “As bikers, we’ve always been a brotherhood, always worked hard, always lent a helping hand, and always had each other’s backs. So I figure we’ve been doing God’s work all along.”

Pastor Duncan Overrein, Brother Jeffrey Scott of Heifer & Pastor Bubba Smith talking it out.

Do I hear an amen?

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Appalachia, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Down on the farm sure looks like Up to me.

Doreen Jankowski didn’t start out to be a local food impresario. 18 years ago, she and her husband Pete moved from Massachusetts to Florida, then back up to her granddaddy’s land in Appalachia (making them “halfbacks” in the local parlance) where she started a big garden on her two acres. Pete was always complaining that he couldn’t find any hot sauce he liked, so Doreen started fooling around with applewood-smoked recipes packed with serranos and habanero peppers. She produced such good hot sauce, her friends started asking her for bottles of it, then their friends started asking for it, then Early Girl restaurant in Asheville fell in love with it, and Doreen figured she might have a business on her hands.

Now Fire from the Mountain is selling from between 500 to 2,000 bottles of hot sauce and salsa a month, and Doreen is up to her elbows in habaneros and cash.

Goat milk mama, Carol Coulter.

Carol & Lon Coulter got lured into local food production a bit differently. 18 years ago they fell in love with a big piece of land in Watauga County that was covered in prickly multiflora roses. Naturally, they bought 3 goats that love to eat those pesky bushes (accidentally, one turned out to be male), and before you could say reproduction, Lon & Carol had baby goats on their hands. So they started making goat ice cream, then goat yogurt, then goat cheese–and that turned out to be so damn good, they created a whole line of Heritage Homestead products. Today, they’re selling 150 pounds of gorgeous chevre, camenbert, blue and gouda cheeses a week –not to mention some phenomenally delicious dark chocolate goat cheese fudge.

Heritage Homestead’s beautiful blue.

Charles Church, one of the most influential farmers in the five-county area, began organic farming after the tobacco farm subsidies flamed out in 2004. He saw the potential for organic produce: “…where for the first time I could grow whatever I wanted, name my price, and get it.” He began to grow all kinds of vegetables on his farm and started a cooperative called East Coast Organics, and last  year, that group made $2.75 million in gorgeous organic sales. Despite the difficulties of farming – and as Charles can tell you, farming is a 100-hour a week, physically tough, demanding job that will teach you something new every day – Church and his wife Betty are skilled and successful; and as a true Farmer of Farmers, he spends hours reaching out to all the farmers around him to help them succeed, too.

Charles’s organic greenhouse where he raises seedlings to share with other farmers.

It’s these kind of folks that Heifer is investing in – and hoping to replicate – in its Seeds of Change initiative, concentrating on the agricultural part of producing local food as well as the enterprise side, helping local entrepreneurs with business plans and loans, production, marketing and distribution.

It starts with people like Doreen, Charles and Carol and continues with young kids in the Future Farmers of America at Johnson County High School who are raising 25,000 tilapia in their school science lab — and envisioning a future when they can make a living on their land. The local food movement in Appalachia is a beauty to behold (and eat!) but to Jeffrey Scott of Heifer, it also has the potential to save the health and jump-start the economy of this traditional farming area.

One sign of the times…

As Jeffrey would say, “Good food is good work.”

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Farming, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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